Cayin N5iiS review

The Landscape

You may recall reading John Darko's ongoing series dubbed The DAP Days Are Over  in which he opines that dedicated portable audio players are becoming less and less relevant. It's a viewpoint I encounter often. When great sounding smartphones like LG's V30 exist, why would anyone still lug around a heavy brick specifically for playing music? 

I completely understand that point of view, yet I still think much can be said for the dedicated player – at least in certain situations. I've covered nearly two dozen DAPs over the past few years Part One, Part Two, Part Three and have formed some fairly solid opinions as far as what makes a DAP worthwhile.

A good DAP tends to offer superior audio quality over even the best smartphones, particularly when driving a challenging load to showcase their more complex amplification circuitry. Better models also give additional features like dedicated line-out and USB DAC functionality, which means they can easily integrate into a desktop system. Storage is also a big deal – many DAPs these days feature two micro-SD card slots plus a bit of internal memory, which means users can easily expand storage to half a terabyte and beyond. All of these features add up to a compelling experience which helps justify the carrying of a dedicated audio player. 

For me, the ability to run streaming services like Tidal and Spotify is also a borderline must-have. I use both services frequently, and I really don't want to lose that option just because my DAP won't support it. Unfortunately that means a significant number of otherwise-excellent options get crossed off my list.

One new product which hits all my requirements, and then some, is the Cayin N5iiS

Plans Change

The company originally launched their N5ii last year, with the relatively affordable price tag of $349 USD. I had one here for review and was just wrapping up my impressions when I got word that it was being discontinued and superseded by a new version. The unexpected situation is explained in this thread at HeadFi. I have to say I find it refreshing to see a company be so upfront and honest about their challenges. 

The result of this little fiasco is actually a better product. Yes, at $499 USD it certainly costs more. And yes, the new stainless steel body is heavier. But it also has a premium look and feel which elevates the player to a higher class. The new IPS display is vastly superior to the prior TFT version. RAM is doubled to 2GB which makes general navigation feel a bit more snappy. Internal storage also doubles from 32GB to 64GB – very handy when the Tidal app won't allow users to save music to microSD (Tidal's fault, not Cayin's). 

We also get higher-quality headphone jacks and upgraded Panasonic tantalum-polymer capacitors, which means slightly-boosted sound quality along with improved reliability. Lastly, bundled accessories get the premium treatment. The basic silicon skin included with the original is replaced by a very nice black and red stitched-leather-look case, which is about as nice as any aftermarket option you might find. And the standard "Apple White" USB cable from the older model is swapped out for a more premium option which looks right at home in a higher-end system. 

The remaining feature set is fairly well rounded, and certainly competitive in this price class. There's a dedicated 2.5mm balanced output in addition to the standard 3.5mm single-ended jack, the latter of which also doubles as a 2V capable line-out. For wireless connectivity, we get standard 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0 – both of which are passable, if not cutting edge. 

Cayin does look towards the future with their use of a multi-purpose USB-C port. As expected, it handles charging and USB connectivity for file transfers. More interesting is its two-way audio connectivity – use it as an output, thus turning the N5iiS into a transport for a higher-end desktop DAC. Or, use it as an input to transform the N5iiS into a dedicated USB DAC for your laptop or other device. 

Cayin sells additional cables to expand this functionality even more: one  lets users extract the coaxial SPDIF signal which is embedded in the USB Type-C secondary bus pins. The other is a very short cable that interfaces with the 3.5mm digital input found on Chord's Mojo and Hugo2 devices. 

All in all, this feels like plenty of connectivity for the vast majority of users. 

Turning our attention to the internals, Cayin is very open about documenting their specific design choices. The DAC section is built around the Sabre ES9018K2M 32-bit chip, with I/V conversion being handled by a pair of OPA1652 stereo FET op-amps. From there, the signal splits a few different ways – a single OPA1622 bipolar stereo op-amp provides the standard output, whilst a separate duo of those same op-amps handle balanced duties. The line-out, driven by another OPA1652, uses a separate signal path but shares the same 3.5mm jack as the single-ended headphone output. Three independent oscillators manage system-timing and keep jitter low, while Android 5.1 hides underneath Cayin's custom implementation of the popular Hiby Audio app. This makes it feel less like a phone and more like a dedicate audio player, though you do still encounter obvious Android-isms when doing things beyond playing music. Worth noting is the option to activate "Audio Priority Mode" which disables wireless connections, kills 3rd party apps, and suspends unnecessary system activity for utmost sound quality. 

My review unit boast 464GB worth of total storage, thanks to dual 200GB microSD cards plus the internal memory. Cayin indicates support for the newer 400GB cards as well, which would bring us up to nearly one terabyte. I haven't verified that for myself though. The device also supports direct playback from OTG storage. While connected to a home network, the device can handle network playback from a NAS or other device using DLNA. Factor in streaming from Tidal and Spotify, complete with offline downloads, and you should never find yourself wanting for content.  

In the end, there's still a part of me that wishes the $349 USD product remained on the market. But since the change wasn't really optional, and the new version is very clearly superior, I'm satisfied with the improvements Cayin brings for the additional cash involved. 

Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co., LTD
9 Lianfa Road, Liangang Industrial Park, Shuanglin Zone,Zhuhai, Guangdong, China

DaveinSM's picture

The Hiby R6 has been on my radar for awhile, though I have an Onkyo DP-X1a that I am already happy with. I’d be curious to hear your take on one or both players. In my view, the main caveat with the Hiby is that 10 ohm output impedance. What were they thinking? But the display quality and user interface and speed look very compelling (still happy with the Onkyo).

John Grandberg's picture

I owned the original Onkyo DP-X1 for a while. Nothing but trouble, culminating in a broken headphone jack that fell off inside the device. Not good. I meant to follow up with the revised model but never got a chance.

I agree on the Hiby R6 - looks interesting but that output impedance is far too high considering the intended pairing with IEMs (at least that's my preferred match when going portable). It's basically DOA as far as I'm concerned.

bernardperu's picture

It would be nice to read how the Cayin sounds in balanced mode. I own the Kann and the Hiby R6. Hiby sounds subpar in unbalanced and great in balanced. Kann sounds good in unbalanced and great in balanced.

Most of the investment in these DAPs are worth it because of the balanced mode (same goes for the awesome Pono, which I also own). Balanced mode allows us to use better headphones that lead us to an overall much more pleasant and engaging listening experience.

So any comments on balanced mode (and comparisons), John? I know you dont have to deliver them, but they would be highly appreciated!

John Grandberg's picture

I didn't comment on this in the write-up because my primary use tends to be portable... which for me strictly involves IEMs (usually customs) or very occasionally something like an old V-MODA M80 or Sennheiser Momentum. None of these, when used in a portable scenario, really benefit much from balanced mode.

I do use balanced when listening at home though. Thanks to a nice little adapter from Moon Audio, I can use all my big 4-pin XLR terminated cans with the 2.5mm balanced output of the N5iiS. That nearly doubles power output, making the Cayin that much more comfortable with HD650, HD800, and LCD-2 (among others). It's still not an absolute powerhouse but for a fairly compact DAP I feel it does an admirable job.

That said, I still think the general flavor still applies when using SE mode. You aren't missing out drastically, especially when using a more sensitive headphone (IEMs or K812 for example). So while balanced is appreciated and worthwhile, it's not completely essential for an enjoyable experience.

Hope that helps!

bernardperu's picture

I appreciate the feedback

Pop Zeus's picture

The N5iiS is designed to be fully balanced, so that's definitely the better way of using the device. Even decent IEMs benefit from the improved separation and dynamics in balanced mode, as long as they aren't super efficient I suppose (I wouldn't know, I don't own any).

jherbert's picture

All those old android versions do not get any security patches anymore. I don't get it that all those companies (including biggies like pioneer/onkyo) still ship Android 5.x or earlier stuff and do not give a damn about. These devices are wide open to a wide range of attacks.

The most current Android release is 9.x, most new phones run 8.x.

I still have to read a review pointing at this issue.

John Grandberg's picture

Is that really a problem on a device like this though? I don't do any mobile banking on a portable audio player.... don't log in to my retirement account either. Have a special Google account that I use exclusively for audio gear. What's the worst that could happen? Tidal or Spotify account compromised? Not much harm done there either.

jherbert's picture

John, do you keep the OS of you Mac or PC current, and do you let let it load security patches whenever they are offered? There is good reason to do so, because theses devices otherwise are open for attacks, and they might spread malware to other devices in the network they live in.

Please consider that a compromised android device is or may become part of a local network, be it at home or - worse - at work. This device will be the entry points for attacks on this network. I am not talking about banking scams or the like, but sophisticated attackers.

May Samsung phone and my huawei tablet both receive security patches almost every month for that very reason, my pioneer dap does not. Go figure.

DAPs these days are general purpose computers running specialized software. They should be handled that way by their manufacturers. Ignoring this is irresponsible, not asking manufacturers for a fix is a disservice to the audio community imho.

So, why not just ask manufacturers why they do not supply security patches and deliver OS versions that have been outdated for years?

ednaz's picture

Yes it does matter. There have been several hacks recently where malware came onto a device via an app then took over the device and became part of a large scale bitcoin mining network. Ran in the background. Phone performance would suddenly suck, but unless you knew what to look for, you couldn't explain it. The apps that were hacked were downloaded via legitimate app stores, and escaped attention from the app stores for quite awhile.

I've seen demos of malware hidden in audio files, jpg files, and pdfs. I can spoof a hot spot that you'll think is one you know well, and the second you connect punch some really interesting code onto your device. I've seen more and more hacks that aren't purposeful, like stealing your account info, but just to create a problem that the hacker can brag about in his script-kiddie groups.

On my home network, no one gets to log in to it other than those using devices I control... they go to a guest network that's completely sandboxed. I've had to hunt and kill some network malware that some guest unwittingly passed on to my guest network. It was running a re-routing app (for covering up where some attack is actually coming from), at a high enough usage level that I could see the performance hit on my home network.

So I'd agree with you that maybe outdated OS code doesn't matter... as long as you're not downloading anything to the device, or installing anything other than what came on it, and never connect to anything other than networks that you control.

John Grandberg's picture

...where you and the above poster are coming from. I guess I just don't worry about it too much - many of the DAPs come with pre-installed Tidal and Spotify etc. If not, I just load the handful I use from the Play Store. And that's really all I do - no internet browsing, no sideloading questionable Apps, no connecting to random other networks. I feel it is reasonably safe though I agree there is a small chance something could go wrong.

You are correct, of course, in saying that it would be ideal if these companies all continued pushing updates for all their products. But many of the audio firms in question are relatively small, and simply don't have the resources for that. If Sony and HTC can't always keep up with security patches, what chance do Cayin or iBasso have? Realistically, I'm just happy to see bug fixes and optimizations keep coming year after year - much better than the Calyx M which seemed to be abandoned after a short time.

When we are dealing with DAPs from Sony or Pioneer/Onkyo, I suppose expectations should be a bit higher. So I see your point there.

stalepie's picture

One thing I wish phones would borrow from DAPs is their nice volume dials, with lots of volume steps (the AK Jr seems to have a good design).

Simply Nobody's picture

The newly released iPhone is available with up to 512 GB internal storage ........ We can get a Lightning to USB adaptor and AQ-DF Red for example and get ready to rock n' roll :-) ..........

John Grandberg's picture

It is great to see such high capacities available. Shame about the $349 premium it commands though. Cayin offers dual microSD slots and 256GB+200GB+built in 64GB costs roughly 1/3 as much. Still, for those on the Apple ecosystem, I'm glad the huge storage exists.

Simply Nobody's picture

One of the advantages of the phone is that, we can access internet anywhere .......... Useful for access to streaming services, anywhere ........ A separate portable DAP has the advantage that, we don't have to worry about battery life in the phone ........... Of course, both devices can co-exist ...........

Simply Nobody's picture

I forgot to mention that, the new Samsung phone has storage capability of 1 TB ..........

sbaradaran's picture

Thanks for the review.

I'm curious why the Ibasso DAPs and iems don't make their way over to innerfidelity? The DX150 would see like a good candidate to compete with the Cayin. The DX200 with Fiio's X7, etc.

John Grandberg's picture

...generally speaking. I covered their DX90 a few years back, in Part 3 of my DAP Survey (see link at the beginning of this article). I quite enjoyed it overall - very solid value for the price.

Would love to cover the DX150, and the DX120 looks pretty intriguing too. But only so much time in the day.

jherbert's picture

Just to get that straight: It's not just old versions of android. It's also security patches provided by google are not delivered to customers. This at least seems to be true for the Onkyo/Pioneer stuff. My DP300R did not receive a single security patch since I bought it, nor did it receive patches for any shortcomings in functionality.

ednaz's picture

The older a version of an OS is, the bigger the library of attack tools available.

We don't live in a very nice world these days. There's a lot of focus on IoT and mobile device hacks since people are now sensitized to the computer risks. Someone created a very effective DDoS attack network by creating hacks that took mass control of network connected refrigerators, washing machines, light switches, etc. and then had them firing requests that overwhelmed the target sites. You can't use certain manufacturers' phones to connect to wifi on military bases these days, because of network attack malware built right into the phones.

But. Everyone has their own level of risks and concerns they're comfortable with. I'm not comfortable with a lot of things because I've had to deal with a lot of the more creative attacks. Fully admit I may be more sensitized by how much I've seen.

jherbert's picture

@ednaz Attacks do not depend on sharing, unfortunately. Consider the BlueBorne vulnerability ( which made it to the headlines some months ago. There are apps to check your device on Google Play. My DAP, the Pioneer XDP-300R, IS vulnarable, and Pioneer/Onkyo just don't care.

Problem is that you can be attacked anytime you are using the device with a bluetooth headset in public. Which is one of the popular use cases for these devices.

The same is tue if you are using an unpatched device on the road via wifi, which you usually do if you listen to spotify or tidal. Once the mobile device is compromised it may spread almost everything to your deviuces back home, once it has a chance to talk to them. No need to share, unfortunately.

So, all I wish for is that reviewers ask one non-audio question to manufacturers: Do you supply Android security patches, and if you do, how frequently?

John Grandberg's picture

Small point, but I personally would never connect to a network on the road for streaming services. It's all about loading up music for offline listening.

But I will certainly keep your suggestion in mind.

Sjeb's picture

John—-I commend you for pointing out this unit supports offline play for Tidal, etc. Unfortunately, most of your colleagues on this site, Stereophile and elsewhere ignore this feature or lack thereof (and thereby give the A&K players a free pass). I couldn’t imagine spending a lot of money on a DAP that lacks the ability to use Tidal while on a plane etc, so I bought an LG V30. I had bought an AK120 years ago when they first came out, and just of can’t understand why they haven’t adopted offline play, and why reviews of their products don’t point this out.

blm's picture

I would like to know with the C5NiiS if you can pick which card you want to listen to music from. If you can, how do you do this? Here is why I ask: I have two cards in my FiiO X5 II. One has all classical music and the other jazz, rock etc. With the FiiO I can pick which card I want to see the index to - so the music from each card is indexed separately. Is this the case with the C5NiiS?